Zoom Diaries: A Week’s Lesson in Finding Voice

Last week, I had the opportunity to be with a group of friends from all over the country. With each of us in a different state, we gathered at 9 in the morning until about 5 each night to discuss what it means to find our call, know our voice, and live into the creativity we were made for.

The key themes I took away can be narrowed into four main points: 1. Own your creativity, 2. The who is always more important than the what (people over things), 3. Language is limiting and can only be used as a tool, and 4. True belonging only exists where radical difference is embraced.

Own Your Creativity:

Times of chaos require the creative one in each of us—that unique creativity which only you or I can bring to a particular situation at a particular moment, when we choose to be true to ourselves. The beauty of our creativity being necessary in difficult times is that our uniqueness feeds one another—they inspire and change each other for something more beautiful, something more truthful, something more loving, something more whole.

There is a prophetic power to creativity which helps us see beyond panic. Today, our class had the opportunity to hear from artist and activist Genesis Be. And while we were discussing this prophetic power, she reminded us: “If we seek to be prophetic, it inherently diminishes the purity of our work…” In other words, if I enter into something so focused on outcome that I lose sight of the goodness and rightness of the work or invitation into the moment itself, then I am missing not only the purity of my creativity but also the truth of my own being.

I was immediately reminded of Thomas Merton’s words in Message to Poets: “A hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.” How do I maintain a sense of clarity within my creativity in a world filled with alerts, unsolicited feedback, and notifications? How do I surrender to the truthfulness of my own being and what I do (and sometimes don’t) have to offer?

Well. Don’t worry. Genesis Be had an answer for that, too, when she said that this reminder was a staple to her work:

“…Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”
―Lao-Tzu

We are creative beings. Each one of us. Nun and Pop Art Artist, Sister Corita Kent once wrote that creativity belongs to “the artist in each of us,” she went on, “To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together we are creating ––whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

A part of creativity is simply being true to who and how we are. Ensuring that we are remembering the fact that being is more important than doing.

Language Has Limits:

Language is limiting. Anything in or of language is a social construct. Yet day after day we use words as meaning-makers, as markers, as navigational tools on this journey we find ourselves on. Today in class, theologian Barry Taylor told us, “we constantly try to arrest the transients of life,” we spend our time making meaning of that which we cannot contain. We’re so fearful of the moment slipping between our fingers that we try to dominate and control it with what we think will keep it still: words. But time still takes it from us. The hour still passes. The sun still sets. Our only certitude lives in utter finitude.

To truly be a person of becoming
To really be a person evolving
Is to be constantly grieving

Perhaps, as Barry suggested, we need to develop a new way to think about possible worlds we can inhabit: a post-alphabet way of speaking, a way that continually moves us: from doing to being, from thinking to existing, from destructing to creating. These new ways, or possible worlds only begin to get created when we take risks with our words (which often leads to poetry and prophesy), deep-dives into our imagination (which expands our creativity), and lean into accepting the transience of life.

The who is always more important than the What (people over things):

“A key question that emerges for me is who (as opposed to what) is left out of the conversations about liberation in our various contexts?” ––Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes

Today in class, the topic of intersectionality emerged. Intersectionality is the ways in which categories like race, class, gender, dis/ability, and sexuality merge, crossover, and coexist. We discussed what it means when someone is unwilling or unready to speak to an intersection and how that impacts the whole.

And I wonder, when I breathe truth and love into one of these aspects of life while dismissing another, am I really living into vision of unity I long for? If I belong to you and you to me, are not all your issues my own, are not all intersections of interest to me precisely because they are our common humanity?

What does it look like to live into loving, embracing, and being inclusive of the fullness of personhood which surrounds us?

Many of us (including myself) fail to speak up and out because lack clarity; most of us (including myself) fail to speak up and out because we lack understanding. But if my love for a human becomes less important than how I look or how something goes, I am missing the mark. And what if that voice of love is precisely what is vitally necessary to save a life, maybe even possibly, my own?

“There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.”

––Mary Oliver, Moments

 

True Belonging coexists with Radical Difference: 

How do we live into our belonging while honoring radical difference? Revering radical difference demands that we deem our own difference as distinctive, important, a part of the whole of humanity and its possible unity. I must belong to myself and be at home within me so that I might be able to see, respect, and honor others. Belonging while honoring radical difference requires radical self-belonging. It requires security, clarity, and self-respect. Because that which most often has me pushing away radical difference is my own insecurity. There is a movement I must complete within myself before I can begin to complete it with my fellow human:

Being to Belonging.
Becoming to Beholding.

May we all feel fully free to move outside of ourselves, and yet choose the stillness of the work within (Shelley Rasmussen Pagitt).

I belong.
You belong.
We belong to each other.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
––Audre Lorde, (Our Dead Behind Us: Poems)

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Things are Different: Grieve, Slow Down, Pay Attention, Stay Tender.

Things are Different: Grieve

Our lives will be forever changed. The grief and loss we now face will forever change us. They already have changed us. They will continue to change us. As long as I keep letting it in, grief is tenderizing me in ways my body had yet to feel. Loss is softening me to myself and others like never before. There is an opening, a deepening, a widening which can only take place in the searing furnace of grief, of loss, of uncertainty.

What would happen if I gave grief and loss more control amid a time of no control? What would happen if I let go to sink into the grief and anguish this moment beckons me to?

“In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us”
––Mary Oliver, Ocean in Red Bird

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Slow Down

Our slowing down depends on each other, and, the thing is, it always has. Nature cannot heal, you cannot heal, I cannot heal, until we slow down and begin to listen to ourselves and each other. This collective slow-down has really pointed me to the crux of the situation at hand: we belong to each other. My moral and ethical responsibility to my fellow human is about the collective us. My staying home is for me, for you, and for the collective body. And yet, my responsibility to me, to you, to us, was there all along. Sometimes slowing down is an uncovering. Sometimes slowing down is a return. Poet Wendell Berry captured the irony of this moment nicely in his 1980 poem titled Stay Home (an excerpt):

“I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.”

What would happen if I slowed down enough to embrace the stirrings within my own body. To feel my agonies and my longings. What would happen if I slowed down enough to remember my self-belonging, my belonging relationally, my belonging to the collective us?

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Pay Attention

Slowing down naturally leads me to paying more attention. My senses become more attuned, aware, and clear. And as I deepen my own connectivity to myself, it is inevitable that I touch an even deeper rootedness to all humans. “Attention,” Simone Weil writes, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

This collective slow-down tells us a lot about our systems — our countless systems which uphold injustices and oppression: the innumerable ways we are seeing the imbalance of Black deaths to COVID, the perpetual racism towards Chinese-Americans, the news segments of privileged white men with no symptoms and even tigers having easier access to testing than someone gasping for air, the continually dismissed clarity from the chronically ill and dissabled communities whose work has been speaking wisdom for time immemorial, the vulnerability of a number of groups including the homeless and incarcerated populations.

Am I paying attention?

It is safe to say that among other things, there is a “racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” which is continuing to make the truth all the more clear, if I let it. If I am willing to pay attention. If I am willing to slow-down and heed the truth of innate belonging. A belonging which demands I see and yield to my connectivity to my fellow human––each and every one of of the collective body. “Sometimes,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic, “racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.”

In 1963 James Baldwin wrote, “I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the time burden is a reality and arrive where reality is. Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage.”

What does paying attention look like in this time of slowing down? What would happen if I did not forget what this moment in time is doing to the collective us, to the whole body of humanity?

“Neighborliness,” writes Howard Thurman in 1949, “is nonspatial; it is qualitative.”

Things are Different: Stay Soft, Be Tender, Let Yourself Rest (and eat chocolate)

Last week I opened the notes on my phone and wrote to myself: “Suddenly you have all this time and you’re not doing a damn thing? Good, you’re doing this right.”

If I have only learned one thing so far in this time of sheltering in place and slowing down, it is this: Stay soft, be tender, and let yourself rest.

That is enough. You are enough. However you’re doing this, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a good job.

Things are different: Grieve. Slow down. Pay Attention. Stay Tender. Repeat. 

(Oh. And, don’t forget to eat a little chocolate. In a recent piece on tips to cope with acedia––“the feeling of being totally bored and totally restless,” author Kathleen Norris shared, “I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going.” Amen.)

Here we are. Welcome to the collective slow-down. 

 

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A Monkish Friendship: Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO (1940-2020)

“The monastic night watch is good practice in the art of waiting, as we patiently look for the coming of dawn. Monks and nuns wait in the dark, longing for the light of dawn but unable to hasten its coming. No one can force the dawn or bring it about in any way. It dawns in its own good time on those who wait for it. The ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment. By quietly watching and praying through the night, I learn to live with the slow process of my own spiritual growth. I have no control over the future and I do not know exactly what will happen. I am asked only to stay awake and be ready because the light will surely come and will claim its victory over every form of darkness, despair, suffering, and death.”

–Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, who died on January 15, 2020.

I first met Fr. Charles in Huntsville, Utah during my 2013 visit to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity (now closed). I would visit and get to see him several more times before he left to live and work with the sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia. Over the years we kept in touch via mail and email and I last heard from him on my birthday in November of 2019 (he never forgot!). The last line of that final email read, “All things pass.”

When I interviewed him in 2013, I was struck by his dedication to prayer and his longing to pray more. Despite having been a monk for over 50 years, he deeply desired more silence, solitude, and prayer in his life. While discussing why he initially decided to enter the monastery he told me, “When I was 20 I wanted to pray, I felt that the world needs prayer and I wanted to go to a group that was dedicated to the same ideal––that’s the way I felt I could make the best contribution to the world…”

We explored the topics of contemplation, silence, community life, solitude, prayer, and why he decided to be a monk. On the topic of contemplative prayer, Fr. Charles shared that although silence and solitude were ideal characteristics of contemplative prayer, he deeply believed in the monastic ideal of continual prayer: “it’s like carrying our contemplative prayer over into the rest of the day so we’re always trying to be in tune with God. The idea of contemplative prayer in itself is like a resting, silent, loving, attentiveness or attention, to the divine presence. In a relaxed and restful way––not a compulsive way. To relax in the divine presence, and to be attentive to it…”

Father Charles was visiting the Trappist Abbey in Vina, California (The Abbey of New Clairvaux) when he died after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke. At 80 years old, with 57 years of monastic vows under his belt, he was planning to transfer his vow of stability to The Abbey of New Clairvaux.

“All things pass.” And still I wonder if our paths might cross on that great infinite river of continual prayer.

Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, Felicis Memoriae (Happy Memory). Requiescat in pace (Rest in Peace). 

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Photo of Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO who died on January 15, 2020, and my friend, Bill Rice who died on December 17th, 2014 (Father Charles sent me this photo from one of Bill’s final visits to Holy Trinity Abbey)
Father Charles was the author of a number of books including Monastic Practices, Spirituality and the Desert Experience, Eco-Spirituality: Toward a Reverent Life, and more. 
Some excellent stories about Fr. Charles can be found on Mike O’Brien’s Blog, including a story about Father Charles sharing with a journalist “I’m glad there’s such a thing as monks. I’m no good at anything else.”

 

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New Year, Same Past

New doesn’t always feel good. We are told to embrace the New Year full of things that have never been as if we’ve been given a clean slate. As though we have no histories of brokenness, loss, torment, or suffering. And our world preys on us with its expectation of resolutions and quick-fixes––there’s a product for everything. For a day or two, maybe, we forget our pasts and embrace this newness, until the rest of us catches up and we deflate into the truth of where and who we are. Perhaps, for me, it’s the third-day itch of the New Year. Some feel it earlier or later. Some never feel the newness. My friend sends me a text: “Everyone now expects a depressed Christmas, but by New Year’s you’re supposed to get over it?”

On this third day, I did not rise. Instead I awoke to the silences around and within me. My heart as still as the days that move slow. My mind as empty as the blank page before me. Everything hushed to nothing. Reaching back into myself, I could only find the spaciousness of absence, the expanse of void. 

Tears are emptied.

The heart is out of questions.

The mind is thoughtless.

The list is so full, it is empty.

The hope is so deep, it is lost.

There’s a feeling of being so together, so clear; There’s only brokenness.

There is the place in my life, paradoxically, where mystery is conceived and the best of myself is birthed. It never seems to be a place of great joy, but it is a place of great truth. The world tells us this is brokenness, that we are the wounded walking around aimlessly. But, I dare to think that these are the breeding grounds for more truth, for more love, for something of the healing we all need and are looking for.

Suffering, Parker Palmer says, breaks our hearts, but the heart can break in two different ways. We can release the anxieties and sadness upon the world in a way that is reminiscent of breaking into shards, shattering the one who suffers as it explodes, and sometimes taking others down when it’s thrown like a grenade at the ostensible source of its pain. Or, we can transform like the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, the one that can grow into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”

How to be that supple heart? The heart that breaks open, not apart? To suffer in a way that connects us? I cannot wander around looking for wounds that match—for that limits personal healing. I cannot thrust myself into the suffering over and over again, for that prolongs the pain. I can only be. Just be. Be with my suffering, my pain, my anguish, in all of its vulnerability. I dare to remember the strength and the courage that this kind of suffering takes. The kind of suffering that is so deep, I’ve lost words to describe it. The kind of agony that is so dark, I fear it will not let me go. Of course there are times and days when I must reach out, whether that be to friends or for professional help, for I am not meant to walk through suffering alone. But I do believe I am asked to try and see the fertile ground on which I stand when I suffer or when I encounter another’s suffering.

In Thomas Merton’s “Hagia Sophia” essay, he expresses that there is “in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom…” Going on to name wisdom as Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), he says of the suffering, “Gentleness comes to him when he is most helpless and awakens him, refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another life, another day.”

On one of the last days of 2019 I cracked open a fortune cookie and read, “Believe in miracles.” Scoffing at the note I thought to myself, what does that even mean? What does it mean to believe in miracles amid a world so broken, so lost, and in such desperate need of healing? The word “miracle” often seems like a far-fetched hope which lives on the outskirts of possibility. My mind wants to make miracles smaller: there are the miracles of ordinary stuff of life, like the friend sitting to my left, who mocks the fortune right along with me. My nephews, who constantly remind me that play is more important than the seriousness of life. The relationships in my life that offer me the rarest and purest form of love by way of time and presence.

But what if the miracle is also so much bigger?

And I know that for too many, suffering has no end. And yet I’ve seen some of the greatest wisdom among those long sufferers—a raw wisdom drenched in presence and love.  While my agonies may not bring me closer to new life, they may bring me closer to an unveiled one. May my dark nights embolden me, on this painful ground, to long for more love and more truth.

Thomas Merton spoke of our world as a place where humanity is “taught not to be content with what they are and to be constantly yearning for something else.” In our longing to feel better, we find ourselves reaching for things to fix or even sustain us. For the everyday miracle. But it is on the ground of being where the miracle of the ordinary lives and a great depth abounds. He goes on:

“…the most crucial thing, at least for me, is the necessity to dig into what one is. A mysticism of is-ness, a mysticism of existence, a mysticism of accepting what is here and now right in front of your nose. And seeing that it is useless to reach out to what one is not and what one will never be. The passage is immediate, there is no passage. You’re not going anywhere, you’re where you are.”

So, onward we all go, into exactly who we are. Into a new year with the same past. Into another day with the same pain. Into the ordinary miracles of life, breath, love. And to the extraordinary miracle of being.

In this new year,

Blessed are you who are broken.

Blessed are you who are suffering.

Blessed are you who are trying.

Blessed are you who feel you cannot try today.

Blessed are you who are hopeful.

Blessed are you who are hopeless.

Blessed are you whose hearts are supple.

Blessed are you who heed the wisdom within yourself. 

Blessed are you who keep opening for the sake of Love, for the sake of Life, for the sake of Truth.

Blessed are you in your dark nights, my friends.

 

 

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The Absurd Vocation

“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” –Pauli Murray

Coming off a week-long class on activism, organizing and social movements in Durham, North Carolina (and my first full year of seminary at CTS), I climb back into the quiet walls of a Kentucky monastery: Gethsemani Abbey. Here, the silence seeps into my bones like a forgotten nourishment as my ears wade through the heightening sounds of the natural world––the birds and the wind erupt in chorus around me. Suddenly, I’m able to more fully engage with myself, my senses are overturned until I begin feeling what I hear, tasting what I see, and even knowing all that I’ll never know. This, for me, is a place of letting go, of opening up, of deepening my common humanity with all human beings.

The tension of paradox is not lost on me. And in being present to the paradox this suggests, I’m remembering a different way of being which allows the contemplative to be an activist and the activist to be a contemplative. It may be seen as absurd to come to such a place after a class on activism. Yet, I’m reminded that for me, there is a vocation of solidarity in the solitariness found here. This “absurd vocation,” as Thomas Merton puts it, is a vocation which yields to a “supernatural unity.” Merton goes on to write that the solitary, “seeks a spiritual and simple oneness in himself (themselves) which, when it is found, paradoxically becomes the oneness of all men (humans)––a oneness beyond separation, conflict, and schism. For it is only when each man (human) is one that mankind (humankind) will one again become ‘One.’”

In her book about contemplation and justice, Therese Taylor-Stinson writes, ”So that contemplation can be whole, it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” In other words, for me, it is the step away which allows me to both awaken and stay awake. It is the time of opening up and overturning my very being which allows a deepening within myself for and with all beings.

While the world so often sees the contemplative life as an excuse to do nothing, the contemplator most often sees this way of being as a path to feel everything. This solidarity of and in suffering that the contemplative often gets in touch with is rarely reached in our days of chaos and discourse. That being said, there are indeed times in which this way of being can be misused as a means to back away where action is necessary. And contemplation without action is as good as silence in the face of injustice.

“What is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men and the truth of God in the world…” –Thomas Merton

While in the Durham class, I was able to engage further with my understandings of activism, organizing and social movements. Our new friend (and professor) Tim Condor led us in an intensive week of exploring and making sense of these things, while maintaining deep respect and kindness towards the number of different paths the class approached such information. Yet the central truth was far too evident to ignore — it is all about relationships. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, each other, and whoever we may deem as ‘the other’ is the core to our ability to create more love, more truth, and ultimately change for the better.

“… As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

–Thomas Merton to peace-activist Jim Forest

One day in class we met in pairs to practice relational meetings. My friend Kerry and I naturally paired up and went outside to chat. A little bit more about Kerry is this: She is a wonderfully bold woman who cares deeply (and not quietly) about the injustices in our world—rightfully so. She is a blogger, author of the forthcoming book Good White Racist (Spring 2020), and a kind of perfect (seemingly opposite) match to navigate this little assignment with. As we sat down and began talking, it became more clear what we might be bringing to one another––my voice surprised me and emerged asking, “Okay, so what would happen if you slowed down more and had more solitude and contemplation in your life?” — her eyes welled up with tears as her expected voice of challenge came charging through to me—“And what would happen if you spoke up more?” We looked at each other a knowing look and began to laugh. Both of us were reminded in that moment of the unique balance our individual scales hold and the importance in lovingly challenging each another to ensure we are remaining true to ourselves and our fellow humans.

I needed her nudge to remember to open my mouth more, to push pen to paper more, to know I will make mistakes in these ways but there are quite literally people dying when I sit silently—whether I do something or not. So why not try and do something? She needed my nudge to remember the necessity of respite to listen, breathing room to reignite our voice, and that sacred step away into solitude that our work might carry longevity beyond our lives.

“The world needs both ways,” we concluded. And those ways need one another in order to host the possibility of lasting change. While the world’s insistent demands often require an urgent response––that response needs undying endurance, abiding fortitude, and an overwhelming stability we cannot possess on empty, and we sure as hell cannot possess alone. 

At the end of class that evening, I walked by a mural of Durham native Pauli Murray: a civil rights activist, lawyer, author, and the first African American woman to be an Episcopal priest. The mural read, True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” Once again, I smiled that knowing smile Kerry and I shared earlier in the day and kept on walking. 

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New film teaser, DAY OF A STRANGER

Many of you know I’ve been working on my directorial debut film, Day of a Stranger: the first film about Thomas Merton’s final years in his own words. For this short film, Patrick Shen and I recently took a winter trip to the hermitage and The Thomas Merton Center for filming, and from that have pieced together the latest teaser below. Thanks to Patrick for his brilliant editing and always working with me in such a way that allows us to both remain true to who we are as artists and ultimately humans.

Film Timeline: With a goal of having our rough cut by summer of this year, we are still completing some fundraising for post-production including editing, color correction, music, and sound design. DONATE HERE.

And, If you’re interested in contributing to our production, we’ve recently began a partnership with Women Make Movies, a 501c3 sponsor out of New York City. With their partnership, contributions made through them can be tax-deductible! Go here to contribute through WMM.

“Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity…”

–– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (p.101)

FOR MORE UPDATES ABOUT THE FILM: Follow the film on Facebook or Twitter!

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Be The Hope, Now

Islamophobia is not just a problem for Muslims, it is a problem for all of us.

It is not the “job” of the marginalized, persecuted, or attacked group to solve the problem. To ask the even more deeply grieving “what do you need,” or “what can I do,” puts even more agony upon them. This is my problem, this is our problem, this is not the problem of my Muslim brothers and sisters.

An injustice that happens outside one’s country and one’s space of worship does not diminish the injustice. Instead, it is an opportunity to say more, to do more, to decrease hate and eliminate discrimination. A blind eye does nothing. A turned cheek only hides from the truth of hatred embedded in one’s own life. Speaking up against one injustice is not speaking up against all injustices. When we see wrong, we must say so. When we see pain, we must be present. When we see wounds, we must learn how to move the wounded towards healing.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail (16 April 1963), he unequivocally points to the error of the “white moderate,” amid injustices writing,

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection… I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress… I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom… I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action… Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions…”

The timetable for another person’s freedom is always now.

The season for justice is always now.

There is no preparation needed for more love, more truth, more justice… It must be now lest we fail to see the humanity of our fellow human, the desperation of our beloved earth… There is no middle ground.

The only question is, “What is my ‘now’?” What is the urgency of this present moment that beckons me to speak, move, change, go, grow. It won’t be convenient, it won’t feel comfortable, it will make me tired and weary—but it is right. It is truth. It is love. It is justice. And it must be listened to.

There is no middle ground.

“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” (MLK, Jr.)

 

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(St. John of the Cross)

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Love’s Undercurrent

Failing to feel is not something I’m accustomed to. You can catch me crying at the beauty of the world, laughing with overwhelming joy, weeping because of the kindness of strangers, smiling because I simply see the sky, shedding a tear over missing my nephews… The point is, letting myself feel is the way I know myself and the world more deeply.

But, the truth is, it’s frequently more for me. Often times, my commentary gets in the way of my actual feeling. My announcement that a stranger was kind can (doesn’t mean it necessarily does) diminish my deep embrace with the infinite undercurrent of love within the moment. Sometimes emotions get in the way of experience, encounter, and a genuine embrace. Sometimes my smile at the mountains is more important than my proclamation of love for them. Sometimes my silence with a thought is more potent than writing it down. Sometimes, my unknown tears are from a place that doesn’t need to be explained.

Many of us face complicated days—memories abound, thoughts stop us in our tracks, histories take over present moments, and we still try to drudge through it all to emerge loving towards ourselves and our fellow human. There’s nothing wrong with exploring feelings with words, it’s human nature to reach for a sense of understanding within language. But, sometimes, the most boundless moments demand our silence. Sometimes the piles of language we create give us even more to sift through.

There are emotions we believe we innately know. For instance, many of us have a kind of faith in love. We’ve felt it heal, hold, cleanse, grow. We know love, or at least like to think we do. We’ve also felt it go amiss, and seen it tilted on its side until it becomes both unrecognizable and no longer life-giving. When I consider the indistinguishable relationship between love and freedom, I realize how often naming the nameless or clothing the bodiless can leave all disguised. Layered upon by language and definitions, the encounter is lost, the unspoken nature of the wholeness is penetrated by words. While love’s undercurrent demands to be felt, love still can be subtle while not being defined, and certainly never aggressively explained.

It is solely in the mystery where love lives, despite the fact that humans have spent their existence naming it. Perhaps love is both a letting go and an opening up, an ever-widening circle capable of holding more and more of the lover and the beloved, in our vast array of human relationships. All too often it’s easier to let go and that can be done in a toxic nature, especially when we find ourselves protecting the ego. On the other hand, we may find ourselves letting go simply because the suffering cannot be held an longer. But without letting go and opening up, there’s room to grow. The rigidity of solely letting go becomes nothing but an end point.

“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Love grows where there’s room for it.

A desperate clinging is the precise opposite of a unfurled “knowing” (not to say there is such a thing). Clinging dissolves freedom, which dissolves a core aspect of faith, hope, and love. Theologian Paul Tillich writes, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” In other words an emptiness or language-less space of freedom must exist before something can begin to fit, make sense, give life.

We are all hurting people. And our openness cannot be mistaken for wholeness. Wholeness does not exist without openness, while openness doesn’t necessarily mean wholeness. In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker J. Palmer writes, “But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, making us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.” Because choosing wholeness takes us on an inward journey—a place of revisiting ourselves, our scars, our woundedness, our darknesses. This inward stroll through the interior museum is not for the faint of heart, but it is for the one seeking wholeness. For wholeness with openness, is a life that abounds in both freedom and love. It is a life whose unattached faith and hope cannot help but delight in the unknown.

“Things take the time they take,” writes poet Mary Oliver.

Hurrying mystery, disables it.

Prodding wonder, forces it to hide.

Coercing awe, makes it dissolve.

“Naming the nameless can leave all unrecognizable,” a monk of Snowmass Monastery once said to me.

And in his 1964 essay to poets, Thomas Merton writes,

“We are content if the flower comes first and the fruit afterwards, in due time.  Such is the poetic spirit. Let us obey life, and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers – fruits of hope that have never been seen before.  With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man. Let us be proud that we are not witch doctors, only ordinary men. Let us be proud that we are not experts in anything. Let us be proud of the words that are given to us for nothing; not to teach anyone, not to confute anyone, not to prove anyone absurd, but to point beyond all objects into the silence where nothing can be said. We are not persuaders. We are the children of the Unknown. We are the ministers of silence that is needed to cure all victims of absurdity who lie dying of a contrived joy.  Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing.  But love changes everything. We are stronger than the bomb…”

Love grows where there’s room for it.

I, for one, will keep doing my best to make room, which is a lifelong engagement. For love is the most worthwhile gift on earth.

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The Way of Love; The Way of the Outlaw

(Friends, this is from my lecture last night, 01/31/2019, at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis for the Thomas Merton Course I am lucky enough to co-teach. I decided to focus on the concept of vocation and in the lecture had also included quotes and concepts from Mary Oliver, Simone Weil, and Elizabeth Gilbert. Hope you enjoy a portion of what I shared in essay form).

I’ve long held the belief that the contemplative way is a way of agony. There are no shortcuts from human pain—ours or those we love. And being that such a way of living is also a way to love the world more deeply, there is no escape from this depth of agony. While this dull ache cannot be ignored, it also cannot be one’s central focus, for any focus solely on the pain limits the work of love and minimizes the infinite possibilities each of us host.

Many of us don’t identify with the word contemplative, and even the word contemplative is messy. In The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton writes, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.” To be a contemplative, therefore, is perhaps just another way of letting go, a way of being with the suffering, in the suffering, a way of showing solidarity––a special way of being present to the pain of and in the world.

That being said, it seems any vocation where one so fully gives themselves to loving others and the world more deeply is inevitably a vocation of agony. It is often a place of loneliness, aloneness, and an ache for the world to know love. On April 4 of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz (a friend who propelled Merton’s interest in Sufism) saying,

I believe my vocation is essentially that of a pilgrim and an exile in life, that I have no proper place in the world, but that for that reason I am in some sense to be the friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself.”

Nearly five years later, on April 3, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared of his experience with vocational agony,

“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak… Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”

Thus, another pathway towards meeting the pain of the world is undoubtedly the way of the activist. In 1961, not long after his discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector, a young Catholic Worker volunteer named Jim Forest first wrote to Thomas Merton. The correspondence began when Dorothy Day handed Jim a letter from Merton and asked him to respond. In the years that followed frequent letters were exchanged between Jim and Merton. In February of 1966, Merton wrote the young activist saying,

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

The one whose vocation is love lives in a narrative that is controlled by reality. And it is within this reality that one meets the pain of the world. It can often feel like a lonely woundedness, a gaping ache, or a gnaw that is just simply ever-present. When speaking of loneliness and aloneness with a sister of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts, she shared how loneliness belongs to us all, to the most human of hearts,

“I think the loneliness strengthens you over time through whatever life brings about… it’s a loneliness that says ‘there’s space there for the whole world… there’s space there for the whole world.’”

This pain—for the contemplative, for the activist, for the contemplative-activist, for those of us in all vocations of loving humanity—is a pain that only deepens and widens with time. As we bear our own wounds and gaze lovingly at the scars and scabs of those we love, our compassion grows deeper still, our hearts break once again, and we move closer to the unending heart of God.

I’ve long believed that all of us are artists and all of us have the capacity to pursue this kind of vocation of loving in our individual ways. Sister Corita Kent once wrote,

Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us. To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together we are creating ––whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

And, Evelyn Underhill argued, “All artist are of necessity in some measure contemplatives.” … Finally, Thomas Merton reminds us, “To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw…” 

 

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The Single Garment of Destiny

“…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.…”
––Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

With yesterday’s holiday, I am considering many aspects of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work. I am remembering the retreat that never was with Thomas Merton (as planned for the month of Martin’s death in April of 1968). I’m recalling the many ways in which his work reminds us what happens when we are silent amid injustices. I am thinking about how his work revolved around love and truth. And I am most focused on the many, many, many lengths our society has to go in the good work he was a part of propelling.

Many of you know that a lot of my work has to do with silence. While I am sure to address the issues related to toxic and negative silences (i.e. silencing our fellow human, the silent treatment, the toxic ways in which society minimizes minority voices), I also try to focus on good and loving silence––the meeting place for ourselves and our loved ones. In the same breath, I’ve learned that silences amid social injustices of any kind not only wound humanity as a whole, but injure our very personhood and limit our common humanity.

Exactly one year before his death, MLK Jr. gave a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break The Silence.” In this speech he shared: “And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak… Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart”

My spirit is stirred as I read these lines. What is burning within my own heart? What places in my life are love and truth begging to be spoken to? What wrongs cry out to be healed, moved towards justice, or pursued for change? What humans desperately need our voices, our presence, our standing alongside them?

“But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?… So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

––Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

May our burning hearts lead us to extreme love. May we all grow in knowing when to break our silences, when to listen, and especially the many ways we can more deeply love one another in this “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” we call humanity.

“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. … The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”

–– Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

Thank you, Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. (1929-1968).

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